In 1984, Music & Art High School (“the castle”) in Morningside Heights and Performing Arts High School in Hell’s Kitchen merged as one in a spanking new building behind Lincoln Center, now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of the Arts. These were the schools that were the inspiration for the movie “Fame.” My claim to coolness among the Long Island Jews in sleep-away camp was being introduced as “Vanessa who went to the ‘Fame’ school.”
To keep consistent with every other venture I had embarked on in my life, I entered LaGuardia mere moments after its heyday. The now forever lost, original Music & Art loomed above the new freshman class like a reminiscent Woodstock. The upper classmen that had been transferred, thus unwillingly torn from their original artistic wombs, buzzed incessantly about the “good ole days” uptown. Refusing to use the newly coined name LaGuardia, insisting they still went to Music & Art or Performing Arts. They scoffed at the new school’s modern architecture. It held little charm compared to the Gothic Music & Art building. And now, two rival institutions came together: musicians, singers, and artists vs. the dance and drama majors.
Unlike Elementary and Junior High school, we were now in a school not dictated by home zone. LaGuardia was an audition based artistic utopia worthy of long train from the depths of every borough.
We were the Kings and Queens of Baptist choirs, J.A.P.’s who scored the lead of Annie in summer camp, violin players who donned neck welts from hours of rigorous rehearsing, ballerinas on point from the age of three, loners who drew Captain Marvel masterpieces with a number 2 pencil and thespians who dreamed of being on General Hospital. All here to sing and dance on lunchroom tables and “Make it Forever.”
We said goodbye to our Junior High friends who were going to Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Humanities, the all coveted ones who made it into Stuyvesant and the few Benedict Arnolds that transferred to private school.
Let me introduce you to the now aspiring stars strutting the halls, fighting for who could be the loudest, most dramatic, freakishly unique and ultra talented.
The Hard Core Punk Rockers
Girls and guys sporting pink, green and yellow mohawks spiked with Crisco, an abundance of black eyeliner, black torn jeans with a surplus of safety pins, Doc Martin combat boots (they were only ones who could get away with the tall maroon ones with black laces) and t-shirts sporting bands like The Sex Pistols and The Dead Kennedys. Highly prone to acne.
The Ska People
Boys who wore porkpie fedora hats like the Blues Brothers, black or grey dress pants, oversized dark blazers, “creeper” shoes and lots of check pattern things. Some got so carried away that they went as far as to have Alice in Wonderland-esque stop watches dangling out of their pockets and carried antique flasks. The girls had bangs, short mini skirts, tights with the black combat boots and matte red lipstick. If done well, this look was very attractive. They listened to The Specials.
The Antique Boutique-ers
An off shoot of the Ska people except they delved into more colorful attire, busting out paisley and Hawaiian prints, and seersucker fabrics that resembled canasta players in old school beach clubs with kidney shaped swimming pools. They listened to The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode and any songs that had that annoying British surfer sound. “Yesterday I got so old I felt like I could die. Yesterday I got scared I shivered like a child.” They secretly enjoyed some top 40 and hip hop, but were fearful of being considered “posers.” Probably the most racially diverse clique on the scene.
The Antique Boutique Female Components
The only clique I felt I had a good shot at Freshman year. Sometimes looked like cast members of “Grease,” adorning poodle skirts, neck scarves and pearl button down letter sweaters. On other days they were 1920’s flappers in string dangling dresses, or classic movie stars in faux rabbit stoles. Tripping over floor length taffeta dresses on staircases, maybe adding a little hat with black netting and accessorizing with a beaded evening clutch in one hand and a knapsack in the other. Rubber bracelets trailed up arms, and during the Madonna days there was even a brief parading of lace gloves and splashes of neon earrings. Favorite group U2. Former Yaz fans. Bought shoes at The Village Cobbler.
The Heavy Metal Crew
Guys: long hair (sometimes feathered in layers) form fitting jeans, cowboy boots and either gorgeous or pimply faces - no in between. Females were pretty much the same style. They usually had huge boobs and no asses. Big weed heads. Mostly white. Listened to Led Zeppelin. Always in long-term relationships.
The Dance Majors
Girls with hair in tight buns, very pretty, stud earrings and those plastic looking sweatpants rolled down. Lots of them named Jasmine and Andre. They wore flash-dancey cropped shirts and tights, even to Social studies. Walked with that dancer’s waddle (looked overly exaggerated if you ask me) super cliquey, sometimes tried to branch out in fashion but never looked relaxed out of dance clothes. All smoked cigarettes but couldn’t handle liquor or weed. In short… perfect, but kinda boring on the hangout tip.
The Hip Hop / R&B’rs
Acid wash jeans, gold “door knockers”, dolphin or “shrimp” earrings, name plate necklaces and rings, sheepskin jackets dyed pink or blue, fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, track suits with matching sneakers, Gazelle glasses and Kangols. Too many hairstyles to go through but extensions, perms, flat tops, gumbys and waves were popular. Baby hairs brushed down with a toothbrush, “Pink Hair Lotion” was a staple in purses. Listened to LL Cool J, Slick Rick, New Edition, Bismarck, El DeBarge and Prince.
The Renaissance Fair inspired Drama Majors
Girls in long patchwork or velvet skirts with dangly tassels and macramé satchels, which I always imagined were filled with marbles! Long sleeve leotards (the v-neck Saturday Night Fever cut). The guys wore Theatre Festival quoted t-shirts from Maine and The Berkshires. The females were usually large hipped with pretty faces and long hair to their waist that was in need of a good trim. They might have necklaces or journals with that annoying “comedy / tragedy” mask. They looked forward to nothing other than playing Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing” or Medea, as they were serious about being actresses for purely the art of it. They sat on the floor a lot, braided each other’s hair and conducted “massage trains.” They read books by Theatre guru Uta Hagen, played hackey-sack and practiced stage combat in the hallways. (Jennifer Aniston was one of these.) I want to say they listened to Annie Lenox or Alphaville, but this is unconfirmed.
And lastly of course…
The Gospel Chorus/Church Queens & Kings
Girls who dressed in yellow bell shaped skirts, blouses, pantyhose and matching patent leather heels. Guys wore satiny textured button downs, slacks and dress shoes and used briefcases as book bags. Usually named Desmond or Marlon. Amazing singers. Fierce, sassy and confident. Sang in hallways, listened to Levert, Luther Vandross, Shirley Murdock and The Winans. Believed the only white woman that could sing was Tina Marie.
My friend Gloria was a Gospel Chorus/ Church Queen/ R&B hybrid. A first soprano, her voice was so high she could hit a high C with no warm- up. Gloria lived in a house in St. Albans Queens which required a train and a bus commute to LaGuardia. Gloria was the biggest New Edition fan in the entire world, but the focus of her intense fan-ship lay in the lead singer Ralph Tresvant, who she referred to as “her husband.” Her love for Ralph was so deep that I was convinced Gloria whole-heartedly believed she might actually meet and marry him. I admired the kind of fan she was. I used to be that way about Michael Jackson, but he was so “junior high school” and I had caved into peer pressure, rolling my eyes when my mother asked why I took down my beloved poster of him in his chick-yellow vest and bowtie. My greatest childhood memory was when I got the “Off The Wall” album for finding the afikomen at Passover. I used to read Michael’s biographies and have my mother test me on his life. “What is the name of Michael’s pet llama?” she’d ask. “Louis!” Gloria was loyal like this, and didn’t care what anyone thought. She’d trot the halls in her yellow patent leather heels with her Minnie Mouse voice, constructing her entire life around Ralph. Her love for him, similar to mine with Michael, was not sexual. It was cuddly and akin to that of an imaginary friend in a tree house. I just wanted to be best friends with Michael and browse through his walk- in closets. Possibly eat ice cream and take a privileged stroll through his petting zoo. Then retreat to the mansion where we would sit in his home theatre with his chimp Bubbles and watch the long version of the “Thriller” video. I’d prod him as to why he never made a video for my favorite song, “She’s Out of My Life.” I’d tell him about how I would so ever gently pick up the record player needle to rewind the part of the song, where if you listen carefully enough, you can hear his muffled sobs. How I understood when pain “cuts like a knife.” Michael would confide in no one but me. He’d fly me home in his jet, and would frequently call to check in, telling me not to worry that no one believed that we were best friends. And one day he would simply show up at my Junior High school in his limo to pick me up and I’d turn to Rachel Blumberg and say calmly, “I told you so.”
Gloria understood this connection with all her heart. She’d rush home after school to tape any New Edition videos from Video Music Box. She collected every issue of Black Beat and Fresh magazine, and could only hope and pray that Ralph would be singled out for a solo shot. Gloria could relate to how I’d once had my mother take me down to the Waldorf Astoria to leave a letter for Michael Jackson with the concierge. But Gloria’s game plan was much more sophisticated than mine had ever been. Like an air traffic control operator, she had a United States map and lit pushpins following New Edition’s tour dates. She once went as far as to take a bus to Lake George on a freezing Saturday morning to wait outside a stadium gate to meet Ralph. When I confessed my Michael Jackson obsession to Gloria she gave me a blurry photo her brother had taken of Michael behind a velvet rope in Disney World. She made me feel the texture of the photo paper and turned it over to point out the Kodak stamp on the back. “See… it’s a real photo!”
While all my friends and I were entering our rebellious “We’re so over it.” phase, Gloria was a splash of innocence and fun. Truth be told, I was struggling in my wannabe Antique Boutique existence. I never quite mastered the look. I was starting to resemble Eliza Doolittle. More importantly, I didn’t feel that I belonged with the Antique Boutiques. As much as I tried to listen to my Violent Femmes album, I had the uncontrollable urge to put on LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells,” and Gloria could simply not understand why white people wore second hand clothes and sat on the ground.
I started to hang out with Gloria and her friends more. This adjustment meant that after school I had to walk back and forth from the “white side” to the “black side” of the school. Different races did overlap, but in general, there was a clear visual split between the two sides of the building. On the black side we listened to Dana Dane, smoked Newports and weed in blunts. On the white side we played hacky sack, smoked Marlboros, Merit or Camel Lights and weed in pipes. On the black side I was known as “white girl Vanessa” and on the white side, I was known for hanging with lots of “homeboys.”
At this point my dialect became a montage of words from the two different worlds. “Awesome, cool, it’s totally beat, let’s jet, fly, dis, dag, fresh, let’s squash this, dude! He’s got juice, mad beef, no way!”
Being the “artsy” school that we were, we treated any occasion as an opportunity to compete to be seen and heard. Loudly. We relished in various “dress up days” declared by the senior class president. Hat day, tie day… I think we even had “All White” attire parties before P-Diddy ever started doing them. Using them all as perfectly valid holidays to justify cutting music theory class. But of course, no day compared to the almighty HALLOWEEN!!! In LaGuardia we started planning our Halloween costumes in July. This was our Debutante Ball. The art students, who had the advantage of working with paper maché and sculpture, were the most adept and grand with their costumes. One year a guy came as the Keebler Elf, building an exact full size replica of the Keebler hut on top of his father’s car. His father drove up Amsterdam Ave, while his elf son in elf garb handed out Keebler elf cookies from his elf post. A trio once came as “The Crest Toothpaste Team,” complete with a huge handmade toothpaste and toothbrush.
The vocal and drama majors were more into characterization along with precision of costume. Three guys once came as the TV show “What’s Happening” crew of Rog, Dwayne and Rev Run, played basketball in the cafeteria and committed to staying in character all day. A 6’3’’ drag queen once came as Diana Ross in a floor length sequined gown. My two friends and I were Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey Dewey and Louie, with orange tape on swimming flippers and white garbage bags as diapers.
And lastly, the dance students who struggled to look “silly,” managed to risk drawing cat whiskers on their faces and don black construction paper cat ears glued on a headband. Our teachers gave in and knew not to expect much of us on Halloween. Classes were cut and we all knew which bathroom we could go to smoke and drink cheap Georgi vodka out of water bottles.
While other high school students might practice their debauchery outside the premises at lunch or between classes, we at LaGuardia were virtual prisoners in our new, still under construction modern building. There might have been a chance for outdoor lunchtime, but our school was directly across the street from Martin Luther King High School. The rough and tumble school that had no patience for our artistic expression. After a number of hair pulling fights, hacky sack interceptions and egg throwing episodes, one of the schools had to have lunch privileges revoked. Us Laguardians, being the more sensitive of the two, were sequestered in the building from morning to afternoon. Our attendance was marked by check-points with electronic plastic ID cards, our virtual Metrocard entrance to school. Once your ID was recorded in the system like airport security, there was no turning back. Martin Luther King students taunted us, basking in the sunshine while we stared down from sealed windows.
But some Laguardians planned their uprising. They refused to be considered punks because they went to an arts school. Representing their boroughs, they patiently waited ‘til 3 o’clock to show Martin Luther King students what a saxophone player from East New York was all about.
Stay tuned for LaGuardia Part 2 coming soon…